After four long years of negotiations, the stage was set for a historic day: on Oct 2, 2016, the eyes of the world were locked on to a plebiscite in Colombia, as voters went to the polls to approve the long-awaited peace between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government. Opinion polls had been consistent in predicting the success of peace, with around 54% public support and a breadth of advocates in the global community. By the end of the day, however, the cautious optimism turned to confusion as the peace in its current form was not to be. The few citizens (just 38% of voters) who weighed in on the future of their country decided in a 50.4% to 49.6% margin in favor of the “NO” vote. The bewildered reaction by the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC demonstrated that the parties were unprepared for this vote against peace.
The Colombia peace vote was just one of a number of global exercises in direct democracy where citizens have been busy deciding the fate of their patrimonies. Just in 2016, referendums in the United Kingdom, Thailand, and Hungary, as well as the decision in Colombia, have gained as much notoriety for the havoc that they’ve wreaked as for any popular decision that they’ve advanced. The most infamous of the referendums this year was the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, known as Brexit, where voters turned against economic inclusion with the EU in favor of leaving the union. The narrative of the Brexit vote has been characterized by the revelation of British populism and negative feelings about immigration. It also showcased how misinformation and political messaging influenced voters who were generally unaware of many of the circumstances of the secession from the EU. In Thailand, voters approved a new constitution that effectively curtailed elements of democracy and entrenched the power of the military-led government. In the Hungarian referendum, voters went to the polls to approve an-anti immigrant policy supported by the country’s president. The record from this rash of responsive politics is mixed at best, with evidence pointing to voters instituting self-defeating policies and aggravating problems they were tasked to solve. The eyes of the world will again be fixated on the referendum in Italy, closely watching the direction in which voters take that country.
In light of the less than stellar recent track record of referendums, why do countries keep having them? And more importantly, why don’t they seem to be working?
A critical reason referendums fail is because of political messaging that is used to carve a stance on the issue at hand, even though it may be framed by a corollary issue. Colombia’s peace treaty decision became a choice on transitional justice, whether to forgive and forget the FARC crimes of the past 50 years and integrate them into society. Even more critically, it simply became the next round of Santos vs. Uribe. In many cases, referendums are scheduled by those in power to give them added legitimacy or to de-legitimize their opponent. David Cameron’s effort to silence the fringe faction of EU separatists in the Tory party ended in disaster, ironically culminating in his resignation. In addition, historical experiences may influence the vote towards an issue where voters are deciding on the next century of policy. Much of the Colombian vote was based on sentiment based on the FARC’s murderous history during the 80’s and 90’s. Perhaps most critically, referendums tend to package complex issues into a simple binary vote and assume that voters have dissected the implications of their monosyllabic response to the issue.
Have referendums always been this way? Well, sometimes. Supporters of referendums will argue that they are the most direct form of democracy and a voice of the citizenry. In 1998, the Good Friday peace was approved by voters in Ireland and Northern Ireland in an overwhelming majority, paving the way for the stability and economic growth that is the story of present day Ireland. Perhaps the lessons from the successful referendums can be used as a model for any such decisions in the future. A way that governments can ensure referendums benefit voters is by mandating a turnout threshold, usually 50%. This ensures that the majority of the citizenry is heard, rather than just factions. Also, referendums should act as a road map for democratically representatives to follow, not as a binding decision that must be enacted. Complex decisions are best left to a trusted representative that has been democratically voted into office by an electorate and trusted to execute the will of their constituents. This representative could use the binary referendum vote as a vector while using their best judgement to make tough choices in a responsible manner.